Figueroa upbeat despite tough break
It was the evening of 5 March when the rumour began to circulate in the country's media: a medical test had confirmed the worst possible diagnosis for Luciano Figueroa, who had limped off hours earlier during the Buenos Aires derby between River Plate and Estudiantes de La Plata.
The news would become official shortly afterwards. The striker, who had only recently returned to Argentina to boost his chances of a place in the national squad for Germany, had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and would definitely miss this summer's FIFA World Cup finals.
Now, a little over a month since he had surgery on the damaged knee, the Rosario-born player can be seen walking gently around the River Plate pitch. Despite having a long and difficult recovery period ahead of him, Figueroa was happy to take time out and talk to FIFAworldcup.com about his injury, the candidates to fill Argentina's striking berths and his country's chances on German soil. "The team have one more fan now. I hope we go all the way to the final," he said.
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"I don't feel that much pain, well perhaps sometimes when I put some pressure on the knee. But little by little I'm starting to feel better." These opening words seem strangely calm for someone who has just seen their chance of playing at their first FIFA World Cup go up in smoke. But that is Figueroa, as composed off the pitch as he is on it. "From the moment I found out what was wrong, I've tried to be positive. It's no use being bitter about it now, although obviously I feel a combination of anger and resignation," he admitted.
And no wonder. The former Birmingham City and Villarreal striker, who has scored 12 goals in just 20 appearances for the Albicelestes, made a considerable sacrifice when he opted to return from Europe last January to sign for River Plate in a deal reputedly worth two million dollars. The idea was to gain regular first-team football and thus be considered for a recall to Jose Pekerman's national squad.
"Apart from performing well for the club, one of the biggest in the world, uppermost in my mind was a place in the squad (for Germany). The stage was set for me to show what I could do but, unfortunately, it just wasn't to be," said the player who, in just a handful of games for the Argentine giants, showed himself to be one of the sharpest finishers in the league.
Though patient and philosophical about the injury, Lucho is experiencing a mass of different emotions, which he tries his best to explain. "Perhaps in Europe, someone going through this would see things differently. Here in Argentina, we live and breathe football. It's part of who we are, perhaps even our maximum expression. Over there, it's not quite the same."
The differences do not end there for the 24-year-old, who added: "When an Argentine international is overlooked by the national team, he takes it very badly and fights like mad to get his place back. In Europe, there's more indifference. If the players miss out on selection, many are not too bothered. It's the same thing when you lose a game. Here you go home devastated, but not so over there."
One more fan
It has not been all bad news for Figueroa, however. After winning admirers with his performances over the years for Rosario Central, River Plate and, of course, the national team, he has been deservedly inundated with messages of support and goodwill from fans of the Albicelestes. Figueroa frequently found the net for Argentina, initially at U-23 level, and later for the senior side, for whom he was the top scorer at last year's FIFA Confederations Cup in Germany.
"I can't complain," he said. "I had calls from all the coaching staff the minute they heard about my injury, and the team doctor even observed the operation. They have been great with me, and for that I'm very grateful." Now, as he embarks on the road to recovery, this assured finisher says he will have to find a balance between working on his rehabilitation and his inevitable role as Argentina's number one fan.
"From the moment I realised that playing in Germany was no longer possible, I became a fan. For now I have to make do with being on the outside, but I'll still be doing everything in my power to help ensure the team have a great tournament. Hopefully, it'll turn out to be the World Cup we all want to see, and the boys can reach the final. As always, Argentina will be one of the candidates. Of that I'm sure."
Now with one less candidate for the attacking berths, who does he feel will be on the plane to Germany? "It'll come as no surprise if I tell you (Lionel) Messi. He's going through a great spell at the moment, as is Carlitos Tevez, someone we should keep a very close eye on. Then there's also (Hernan) Crespo, a player I've admired since I was a kid. Some people say he's not at his very best right now, but he still remains a great player and goalscorer. Hopefully he'll have an excellent World Cup. Last but not least there's my friend (Cesar) Delgado, who is as gifted as anyone."
With the finals in Germany looming, coaches the world over are keeping their fingers crossed that their star players can remain injury-free and none more than Pekerman. Figueroa's cruel injury may have reduced the coach's strike options, but it has given his side not only another impassioned supporter, but also a player determined to make up for lost time when he returns. The 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa may seem a long way off, but for one Argentina player, the preparation starts here.